As art-house theaters vanish, so does film diversity

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As art-house theaters vanish, so does film diversity


Sponge House, left, and CineCode Sonje, bottom right, two major art-house theaters in Korea, recently went out of business due to financial difficulties which largely derived from a change made last year to the Korean Film Council’s financial support program. Above right is an online post by CineCode Sonje last November announcing its abrupt closure after seven years in operation. [JOONGANG ILBO, CINECODE, JIN EUN-SOO]

Sponge House, an art-house theater which had been tucked away in the neighborhood of Gwanghwamun for the past 10 years, closed its doors on May 12 due to financial difficulties.

It was that kind of old-style, rustic theater that was only equipped with one screen.

But because of its unique selection of films that specifically preferred independent cinema and documentaries from Japan, the place served as a cultural haven for people in search of a lazy, relaxed movie experience.

“Overall, it was a very difficult situation for art-house cinema in Korea to generate profit,” an official from the now-closed theater said.

“It wasn’t any better for Sponge House. When the time came to renew the contract with the building owner, we thought it was right to close the doors.”

Sponge House is certainly not the first case of an art-house theater being driven out of business due to money troubles.

In February, Shin-yeong Cinematheque, the only art-house theater in Gangwon, announced its temporary closure, citing “severe financial breakdown.” It said “temporary,” but industry insiders were concerned if it would ever reopen.

Before that in November, CineCode Sonje, another major independent cinema located in the serene neighborhood of Samcheong-dong in central Seoul, had to abruptly say its last goodbye because it couldn’t pay its rent fees. The theater was reportedly sitting on an unpaid rent amounting to 900 million won ($760,000).

“It used to be my go-to place when I get off from work,” said Lee Ji-eun, 31, who came to Sponge House early in May without knowing the place had closed down.

“I come to this place because it is quiet and sells affordable coffees. I am not a fan of loud blockbusters such as that of Marvel’s which is dominating theaters these days, so I try to avoid them,” Lee added. “I will miss this place.”

The string of recent art cinema closures is posing several problems for audiences as well as filmmakers. Not only it is making an already dire situation for indie filmmakers more difficult, but more importantly it is also depriving audiences of the right to experience a wide array of films.

Financial troubles

It has been a long time since such small-scale theaters that screen non-mainstream movies have begun to lose ground in Korea, largely due to the emergence of conglomerate-run multiplexes in the early 2000s.

However, a recent adjustment to the support programs carried out by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), a state-run organization which operates to support and foster the domestic film scene, has drastically changed the game for local theater operators.

The supporting program works under two categories - the one for art-house theaters and the other for independent theaters.

A major change was made to the art-house criteria. Before 2015, the state-run establishment provided a reported 40 million won to some 20 qualified theaters, which was used to compensate for their marketing and promotional expenses.

But beginning last year, the program changed so financial aid is not provided to the theaters anymore but instead is given to select independent movies.

KOFIC said it would pick 48 films a year and provide funds for marketing activities and the support for gaining entry to theaters.

“It is in fact very difficult for cultural facilities like indie and art-house cinemas to solely operate based on profits generated from ticket sales,” said Ahn So-hyun, a programmer at Indie Space, a one-screen theater in Jongno District, central Seoul, that specifically screens domestic indie films, mostly documentaries.

“It is more of a symbolic place for enriching the local cultural scene and protecting small filmmakers,” she said.

Indie Space, which is categorized as independent theater, also lost its government funding last year. KOFIC used to fund a total of four independent theaters, but in 2015 it excluded two venues - Indie Space as well as Arirang Cine Center in Seongbuk District, northeastern Seoul - while adding Busan’s Indie Space to the list.

“We changed the policy on supporting art-house theaters last year because we thought the provided funds were not used properly, such as just being used for the theaters’ maintenance fees,” said Tae Eun-jung, a public relations manager at KOFIC. “So the change was made to directly supporting the movies in hopes of fostering domestic indie films,” she added.

She also said that the outcry of the theaters over the new policy is the result of a “misunderstanding” between the indie film community and KOFIC.


Film critic Oh Dong-jin speaks during the opening ceremony of “Finding Theater” on April 15 at Gurye Natural Dream Park in Gurye County, South Jeolla. [GURYE NATURAL DREAM PARK]

Cultural variety at risk

But the closure of art-house theaters means more than just operators going out of business.

When a venue that used to provide diverse lineups of movies that wouldn’t be screened otherwise closes, it means that audiences are deprived of their right to enjoy films other than big-budget films selected by profit-driven multiplexes.

Recently, there has been heated debate about the screen monopoly in multiplexes, where big-budget films take up majority of the screens, not to mention being aggressively screened at prime times.

In April, when Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” hit Korean theaters, its number of dedicated screens hit 1,990 on its fourth day after opening. There are only 2,519 screens in Korea.

The situation gets worse when the multiplexes are affiliated with the companies that produce and distribute films, as evidenced by CJ Entertainment’s 2014 bonanza “The Admiral: Roaring Current,” which was under fire for monopolizing time slots at the company’s affiliate, CJ CGV.

“The screen monopoly interferes with the audience’s right to select films,” film critic Jeong Ji-ouk said.

“There are people who wish to watch films that are not superhero flicks, but since multiplexes don’t screen them, they have to go find theaters that actually screen other non-mainstream movies,” he continued. “But when these types of small theaters don’t operate either, it will eventually lead to extremely monotonous consumption of films, and hence a monotonous film industry.”

And the changes to KOFIC’s support program only escalates the potential threat.

Under the new policy, it will be easier for the selected 48 films to be distributed in theaters, but that means that films that don’t make it on the list have that much less of a chance to find distributors and theaters.

“Under this policy, there is no chance for provocative and unique films that tackle issues that cannot be featured in commercial films to be made,” said Bryan Kim, CEO of indie film distributor Indie Plug, in a recent interview with film magazine Cine21.

“If the support gets concentrated on distributing those 48 selected films, it will become harder and harder to see independent films either online or offline,” he added.

In addition, the policy will jeopardize the identities of the alternative theaters, which define themselves through the films they show.

“The program and lineup were entirely up to the theater’s programmers before, but the state-run organization selecting what should be screened in our small theaters is extinguishing the audiences’ right to see diverse films,” Ahn from Indie Space said.

She added that many customers are loyal fans who come without even checking first what is playing. “The relationship and trust they’ve built with the theater” is what keeps them coming back, according to Ahn.

And Lee, mentioned above, who is a frequent visitor to Sponge House, also said she doesn’t check the lineup in advance, which is why she didn’t know the place was closed. The theater’s distinctive focus on Japanese art-house movies was what made her come back.

Unique alternatives

The escalating discontent with the state-run film authority has lead local cineastes to start a movement of their own.

Recently, indie filmmaker Min Byung-hun chose to share his artsy film “I’m Feng” directly with the audience, instead of distributing it in theaters.

Those who want to see his film can e-mail the director or the film company, and then they will receive a link to the movie.

In an interview with the JoongAng Sunday, Min said he doesn’t want to share his film with “institutions that don’t want or appreciate it.”

Another major step in the movement was when a group of professionals in the indie film industry announced a plan to roll out a series of screening events called “Finding Theater,” where they will travel around the country to screen films that are in need of support at venues that are not one’s typical idea of theaters.

With the aim of forming an unprecedented network of some 300 venues dotted across the country that are suitable for screening films, such as school assembly halls and local art galleries, “Finding Theater” hopes to resolve the imbalance in the distribution of films.

The opening event took place at Gurye Natural Dream Park in Gurye County, South Jeolla, on April 15, with some 150 cineastes who support the cause in attendance. Film critic Oh Dong-jin and actor Ahn Sung-ki were among those who attended.

“We are going to go on a tour around the country and hold such special screening events,” Oh said at the event.

“If we link these 300 venues which are qualified to screen movies, films that have lost their screens can find their way back to the audience,” he added.


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